The prominent theologian Paul J. Griffiths is known for his philosophical study of Catholicism and Buddhism, as well as his intimate knowledge of the Augustinian tradition. Two of his recent books, Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity and Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, traverse the territory of The Other Journal’s twentieth issue by making a nuanced study of the sin of lying and the vice of curiositas. In this interview, Griffiths discusses ways that Christians might think about evil in relation to God, creation, humans, and even angelic beings.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In his book Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, Charles Mathewes observes that contrary to the prediction of Hannah Arendt, post-World War II intellectuals seem to have spent more energy on avoiding thought about evil than on confronting it.1 Do Christians, whether they’re intellectuals or not, need to be reflective about evil? And does our hesitancy to reflect on evil reveal something about the relationship between human agency and evil?
Paul Griffiths (PG): I think Mathewes is right—the modern history of thought exhibits a tendency to avoid thinking about evil. This avoidance has a number of forms and it might be useful to distinguish them. The first kind of avoidance, which is characteristic of much Enlightenment thought, suggests that evil, whatever it might be, is a contingent fact about human beings, that it can be overcome, and that if we get things right everything will be OK. According to this paradigm, we should spend less time thinking about evil and more time thinking about how to reorder things so that evil is not a problem.
A second kind of avoidance, which is perhaps more characteristic of Christians and which is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, is to say that evil isn’t really a thing. This paradigm requires thinking about an absence or a lack, and because that’s not an easy mode of thought, Christians tend to avoid it altogether.
The third kind of avoidance, which I think your question addresses, is that, for everybody, Christian or otherwise, thinking about evil is uncomfortable. It requires us to attend to facts about how we think and how we act that we’d rather avoid. They are not easy to look at. They are disturbing. They puzzle us because we’re not really clear why we do things that we’d rather not do or have done to us. And so we avert our conceptual gaze from them. This kind of avoidance springs from a deep discomfort about the very fact that we act and think in ways we’d rather not. And this gets at the very nature of evil: it’s recursively difficult for us to get a handle on it, and so we’d rather not try.
TOJ: It seems that in order to really get a handle on evil, one has to carefully parse the overwhelming multiplicity of terms that we associate with evil—sin, death, temptation, disorder. As an Augustinian scholar do you think Augustine provides us with a grammar that’s helpful for thinking through how these various terms relate to the Christian concept of evil?
PG: Yes, I do think Augustine’s lexicon is helpful. It’s also the lexicon that has entered most deeply into the Christian tradition—both Catholic and Protestant, but maybe more Catholic. But it’s not uncontroversial. It’s not straightforwardly applicable for everybody.
Our earlier discussion of how we tend to avoid discussing evil is relevant to this lexical conceptual question, too, because at least in contemporary English, it’s very difficult to find anybody who is happy to say, “I’m an evil person” or “I just did something evil” or “I have evil thoughts.” The word has become too inflated for that. Nobody wants to say that about themselves. When I teach undergraduates and we talk about these things, they will all say, almost without exception, “I’m fundamentally a good person but . . . .”
Augustine is helpful for sorting this out, but first we need to do a little Latin. The first key words from Augustine on this are a matched pair, malum and bonum, which can be translated as “evil” and “good.” Bonum is a word he takes to be effectively interchangeable with God—God is the good; and good is God. And each of these meanings is in turn interchangeable with various terms meaning “to be” or “to exist.” God—the supreme being, the good—is described in Exodus chapter three as “he who is.” So “good,” “being,” and “God” are all interchangeable, at least for technical purposes. From that complex of terms we get a sense that everything that exists, not only God but everything that God has brought into being, must partake of this goodness which belongs intrinsically to anything that exists. Thus, a common Augustinian idea is that the extent to which anything exists is the extent to which it is good. This applies to both God and God’s creatures, so the extent to which I exist is also the extent to which I exist as good. There can be no evil being. To speak of an evil being or something that is being evil is for Augustine like speaking of a square circle.
Augustine’s understanding of evil, arrived at with some difficulty he says in Confessions, is that it is precisely and only the privation or absence or lack of the good.2 Thus, to be or become evil is to lose some good or goods that one might have had. And if one takes seriously the relationship between goodness and being, then there is a parallel relationship between evil and nonbeing. This means that the idea of a supremely evil creature or a creature that is only evil is not an idea that makes any sense because such a creature could not exist. That’s the end point of evil—it is nothing—whereas the end point of good is God. And between the two, for Augustine, there’s a hierarchy of being. There are things that “are” more than other things, and you can arrange creatures on that hierarchy according to various criteria and methods.
Now if you don’t take that line, Augustine would argue that you’re going to end up with some kind of a dualism where there’s a good principle called God and an evil principle called who-knows-what, Satan perhaps, and those two independent principles are locked in eternal conflict. Lots of Christians think like that, but it’s not really a Christian way of thinking. If God is the origin of all that is, and if God is definitely or necessarily good, and if all creatures are thereby necessarily good, then there can’t be any thing called evil. If you don’t say that, Augustine suggests that you’ll in the end abandon Christian orthodoxy.
Evil for Augustine isn’t a term that relates to what we do, what we think, or what we intend. The term for that in Latin is peccatum or sin, which occurs at the level of human agency. Sin is exactly and necessarily our attempt to be evil. Given Augustine’s understanding of evil, sin is thus an attempt to be nothing, a grasping after what’s not there. And that grasp inevitably damages the one who makes it; it can damage others too, but it certainly damages the sinner. I find that helpful because it discriminates evil from sin. It helps us to see what evil ought to be ontologically, in the order of being, which is nothing, and it helps us then to see the sheer oddity of sin, the strangeness of seeking something which not only isn’t there but can’t be there. Yet that grasping is something we all do, and that’s the interesting or puzzling feature of it.
TOJ: In Scripture and in tradition we encounter stories about demons, fallen angels, and Satan. Are they evil beings? Do they have being? How are we to think of them?
PG: Augustine thinks, and I agree, that there are beings in the world called angels and demons. He takes the usual Christian position on this: demons are fallen angels and the devil, or Satan, is just one more among them—he’s the most fallen of the angels we might say. But to really understand the relationship between evil and demons, let’s leave the demons aside for a minute and first think more about what we mean when we say that someone is doing something sinful and thereby becoming evil.
There are a number of appetites or desires that human beings have, all of which fall under the heading of sin. There are various ways to list and characterize them but one of the most fundamental, perhaps the one that informs all the others, is the appetite or desire for mastery or ownership. And this, in Augustine’s view, is the appetite or desire that shows itself in us wanting to be God rather than to be God’s creatures. This appetite or desire can be evident in many particular ways and by thinking through a few of them, we might better understand what evil might look like in human life.
Suppose you want to master or own or control another human being. This is a very common thing that human beings want to do. It can manifest itself at the social and political level as slavery, but it’s evident in much more subtle ways as well, say for example the relationship between parents and their children. Part of what it means to be a parent is to be aware of the dangers of trying to own one’s children. Ownership of children would mean controlling everything about those children, making of them an image of oneself and denying to them, implicitly or explicitly, the capacity to develop as free human agents before God with their own idiosyncratic characters. And we’ve all seen, I suspect, and done a version of that. But it’s a question of how much one does it. There are extreme cases where one sees parents who really are caught in the habit of trying to own their children, control them, make them into themselves, make them utterly subservient. Another common example occurs in intimate or romantic relationships. The same desire, what Augustine would call the “concupiscence for domination,” is apparent there too. What we want from other people in our intimate or romantic relationships is not them—what we want is simply an object to fulfill our own desires.
I would say that the experiments of modernity with respect to radically remaking political orders or revolution and genocide provide larger instances of this lust for mastery. One way to achieve mastery is to remove everything except yourself. If you are all that’s left, you’ll be in charge. But to do that is almost an ideal type of the desire for mastery that is characteristic for sin. And so if you look at the great genocides of the twentieth century, they’re all informed by that in a way. In a sense, they all begin when someone says, “Things are really bad; things have gone wrong; the way to set it straight is to gain complete control over it, to restart it.” That will almost always mean killing everybody. And there are a lot of examples of that.
Those attempts at mastery can all become habitual, and the interesting feature of such attempts at mastery is that they inevitably fail. The desire to have mastery or control over a lover or a child, for example, precisely removes that person from being a lover or a child and it tries to make them something that by definition they’re not; it fails as an enterprise. The way that habituated sin is evident in the world is in this kind of systematic, habituated, and destructive attempt to transform the objects that it seeks into something they can’t be. Returning to our discussion of Augustine’s sense of malum and bonum, the idea is that evil is a lack and that the habituated sinful desire to seek evil is a desire to seek nothing. This absence or lack does not mean that sin is not evident in the world, it just means that that’s the way to describe what’s going on when we sin. What we call sin is our attempt to remake real things into something that they’re not. And to do so is to damage them and oneself. That can become systematic and violent, and when it does, it can be radical. Go all the way from very trivial examples to deeply disturbing ones, and it doesn’t take that much introspection to see oneself doing versions of these things and becoming habituated in doing them.
There’s one more important point to make about this lust for mastery: we can’t not do this. That is to say, the aspiration to not be sinful is itself almost certainly to be understood as a sinful aspiration. Augustine would certainly say that the right response to perceiving one’s own sin is not to say, “All right. Now I’m going to stop that.” That’s the Pelagian response; that’s the response that says human beings are capable of following through with such a decision. The right response is to acknowledge our powerlessness before our own sin. That returns it to God. And only in that kind of acknowledgment is the capacity to move away from sin possible at all. Indeed, this is an important division within the Christian tradition in terms of what people think about human agency and our capacity to overcome the habitual nature of sin.
TOJ: In your last response you shifted back to the matter of human agency. To return to Mathewes’s book, another observation that he makes is that modern persons have a hard time understanding and responding to evil’s challenges because we do not believe in sin.3 I’d like to hear your thoughts—do you think that this observation is correct?
PG: One way that Mathewes is clearly right is that the concept of sin or the active appropriation of that concept has diminished in modernity, both among Christians and outside the church. A manifestation of this for Catholics is that an unintended effect of the Second Vatican Council has been that the use of the sacrament of penance or reconciliation has drastically fallen off, and that’s one of the instruments the church provides for Catholics to deal with the sense of one’s own sinfulness. There’s clearly a correlation between sin and holiness, and there must be Protestant analogs to that.
Moreover, in both social and political currents of thought there has been for a long time a tendency to externalize the causal account we want to give for our problems. We attempt to identify a causal story about why things are screwed up, and we attempt to locate this story not principally in the order of human agency but rather in the order of contingency that we can set straight. And when we do that, the concept of sin is not going to be useful. We’re going to look for something else—we’ll attempt a broad social engineering approach to set the orders of society right or we’ll attempt to get the means of production right.
However, I think there’s also been something of a recovery of the concept of sin, or at least a realization that the more old-fashioned, optimistic perfectionist approach to the social and political just won’t work. The recalcitrance of human aspirations to violence and oppression and rape and all unpleasantness has become more evident, I think, over the past several generations–at least to Western intellectuals–than it was one hundred years ago. If you read social and political theorists from the late nineteenth century—it doesn’t matter whether they’re French or English or German—there’s a degree of optimism and a lack of attention to the idea of sin that would be unthinkable now for anybody. And I think this is because some things have happened during that time which ought not to have happened according to those more optimistic accounts. Europe spent half a century in a blood-soaked attempt to kill all of its young people, and recent events in other parts of the world show a similar enterprise. This desire to kill one another in large numbers and preferably as unpleasantly as possible seems unlikely to go away, and I think even radically secular political theorists acknowledge that.
At the personal level, this is much harder to assess. When most people are in the privacy of their bedchambers meditating upon themselves and what they actually do, I think they probably have a sense of sin. They’re puzzled by why they’re like this and not like that, why their best impulses, as they understand them, are often not acted upon and why what they take to be their worst impulses often are acted upon. People, I think, are often aware of this, even if there are other things in the culture that speak against it. We’re in a complex situation and there are probably social class determiners here too, but that’s a long story to go into. So I do think there is a diminution of the concept of sin but also a reoccurrence of it.
TOJ: But sin is a theological concept, right? I can imagine someone sitting at home and wondering why they make the choices they do, but that kind of introspection won’t necessarily lead them to a theological concept of sin, which would imply the need of a savior. I wonder whether what you’re describing is not so much a recovery of a notion of sin but perhaps just a more realistic view of the limitations of our human capacities.
PG: This is maybe another lexical question. It’s certainly right that someone who is not catechized into Christian ways of talking is not going to arrive at them by meditating upon their own imperfection. But I do think people both can and do arrive at the sense of their powerlessness over their own habituated grasp after nothingness. They’re not going to articulate it like that, but that’s often what they arrive at. Here’s the Pauline version of this: “The good which I would, I do not; the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19, KJV). That awareness, even if not in those terms, I think is widespread.
And I think you can see secularized versions of this in the language of addiction, an acknowledgment that I can’t do this by myself and that I need help to start doing what I want to do and to avoid doing what I don’t want to do. It’s what Catholics would call an anticipation of the concept of sin in the natural order of reason: you just expect people to get there because people are fundamentally like this. Not everyone gets this but many people do.
That’s why good evangelical preaching works. Good evangelical preaching is trying to convict people of their sinful status. And when it works, it works because people are ready to be convicted. They know that something’s not right. And so there’s an anticipation of the gospel, even in those who haven’t been consciously aware or haven’t heard it. And of course in a post-Christian culture there are remnants of the gospel as well. It’s a complex dynamic. But I think it’s both/and, both decay and increase, back and forth.
TOJ: You sort of touched on this earlier, but I’d like to press into it a bit more: when reading Augustine he seems at times to have an overly negative view of creation, as if the things of this world actively tempt us away from the contemplative life, the good life, the happy life. Some see this as a residual Manichaeism in him, but it’s hardly unique to him. How should Christians think about the material world? What’s a proper view of humanity’s relation to the rest of creation?
PG: Earlier I mentioned the Augustinian idea that the extent to which something exists is the extent to which it is good. Now add this: the extent to which something exists is the extent to which it is beautiful. If you allow that addition, then you’ve got an equation between existence and goodness and beauty. Augustine would sign on to that in thirty seconds or less.
And suppose we then apply that idea to both the animate and inanimate that surrounds us, to those things that are not human beings, to books on the shelf, to trees, chairs, and tables, to artifacts and non-artifacts. The world is full of things. The first point about the proper Christian response to it then is one of wondering and awe that there are all these beautiful things. And again I draw this directly from Augustine—he actually says this again and again—the right response to the goods that are created is to love them. This love flows out of a sense of what a creature must be in order to be a creature: made like God, made like God who is supremely good, therefore, also good in its kind. So that much is clear as far as Augustine is concerned.
Alongside this, however, there’s what you indicated, a deep strain of concern about how we relate to these beauties and goods that surround us. And Augustine does worry about this a lot. He worries in ways that seem strange to many modern people, including me. He worries about listening to the psalms being chanted in church and being so seduced by the beauty of the chant that he’s not listening to the words of the psalm. He worries about observing the beauties of the bodies of other human beings and being so excited by that beauty that he won’t attend to those bodies as created goods,but rather as something else. And so on and so on. Some of that’s temperamental, I think. And some of it’s part of the grammar of Christian thought: what he wants and what Christians also want is to learn to love these beautiful and awe-inspiring things that surround us for what they are, not as something else.
In loving these creatures, which we must do, we love them because of the particular relation they bear to their Creator. And Augustine sometimes gets lyrical about this—not very often, but sometimes. For instance in Confessions he goes through a catalog of trees and rivers and things, and for each he cries aloud, “I did not make myself” (bk. 11). It’s critical to Augustine that we are loving these beautiful things according to the particular mode of God’s being that they participate in. That’s the sort of rubric under which Christian love of the created order occurs. What this means in practice is a little more difficult to say. What does it mean to love a tree? Does it mean not cutting it down? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes one needs to cut trees down because they’re a problem in some way. But it certainly means, I think, that if you’re going to cut a tree down, you should probably be mourning the fact that you have to do so. The key point is that our love of the created order in all of its variety should also mean love of creatures and, therefore, also love of God.
The worry, which maybe Augustine overdoes and maybe the tradition overdoes, is that we’re all too likely to start loving creatures not as creatures but as if they were something else—as if they were God. And we especially like to do that with other human beings, so that our spouse, our children, our friend—they become as God to us. This is something we do very easily.
Or we may fixate upon an inanimate object in a similar way. Such objects become for us the very center of the universe. Human beings are odd in this way; we can make idols of just about anything—shoes or books or academics. They’re all instances of the same sort of problem. That’s the worry that underlies this often fanatically negative language that we see.
TOJ: You’ve mentioned beauty and I often wonder whether beauty itself isn’t something that’s idolized. We often think of beauty in terms of order and we think of evil and sin in terms of disorder, yet it seems that evil can also be beautiful and that this is part of its enticement. Is there an aesthetic dimension to evil?
PG: That’s a wonderful question that I very much doubt I can answer, except to say, yes, there is an aesthetic to evil. In older English versions of the liturgy, especially the baptismal liturgy, the word that is used to characterize evil is glamour, which isn’t an aesthetic word, but it is a word that carries a range of meanings that are somehow opposed to the aesthetic of beauty. Exactly what that range of meanings is, though, is not so easy to get a handle on. It has something to do with the difference between surface allure and the order of depth. And so evil is certainly glamorous and attractive to the eye.
If you think of the temptation narratives in the Gospels and what Satan offers Jesus, at least one of the temptations—and maybe all of them in slightly different ways—is the offer of something that looks extraordinarily attractive. The kingdoms of the world are laid out for Jesus to see, and all he has to do is bow down and worship the one who is offering them. The temptation there is something that looks attractive. And to revisit our earlier discussion about sin as a desire for ownership or mastery—that also looks very attractive, because one of our deep worries is losing the capacity to order our own lives. It looks very glamorous to be able to order our own lives. And the extreme version of that is to master the world in such a way that we become invulnerable to it. That’s the glamour of power, perhaps. And it’s very shiny.
I also sometimes think that—it’s very hard to justify this, so I won’t try; I’ll just mention it—the allure and attraction of shiny technological objects are a good example of glamour. They’re beautiful on the surface. They look smooth and attractive. They promise mastery, that if you could only own the iPhone or the iPad, for example, you’ll become the sort of person who will have mastery over the world and this shiny object will give it to you. The very aesthetic there, at least for me, has resonances with the language of glamour. But this is a complicated matter because it turns out to be very difficult to give a characterization of beauty as opposed to glamour that’s well developed and carries conviction. That’s one of the great enterprises of theology to try to do that.
Just one more instance of this: one of the oppositions within the tradition is the opposition between the icon and the idol. Each has a beauty, but the beauty’s very different. One difference would be that the idol is something that attracts the eye but it can’t be seen through; it doesn’t actually show us anything. The gaze fixates on it. It’s frozen to it. And it can’t go anywhere. It’s like a magnet being attracted to the eye; it gets stuck there with nowhere else to go. The icon is something quite different. The icon is something that gazes at us as we gaze at it. So we become its lover because it’s looking at us. The idol isn’t looking at us; it is exhausted by us looking at it. This is but another way to consider the glamour/beauty opposition. The idol is glamorous—it attracts the gaze and the gaze fastens upon it—but it doesn’t actually address us at all. The icon is the reverse of that. But these are difficult matters and I’m not really equipped to say much more than that.
TOJ: Well it does sort of lead us back to questions of materiality. One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church is that in both cases they seem to deal with evil in very concrete, material ways. I’m thinking of the sacraments but also the continued practice of exorcism and the use of things like holy water. And then there are the lives of saints who are said to have confronted evil directly. This hagiography is a crucial and, I would say, concrete aspect of Christian formation. What do you think these practices and holy things suggest about how the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church understands what it means to confront evil? Is it enough for individual Christians to pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” or do we need these practices and these holy things to help us avoid being trapped by idols, as you’ve just mentioned?
PG: Yes, we do need physical things like sacraments and the sacramentals, that is, things that participate in the sacraments but are more distant from them. And that’s because embodiment is not incidental or accidental to human beings. It is constitutive or intrinsic; it’s proper to us. And so our vision of the life of the world to come is every bit as embodied as is the case in this life, not identically but every bit as embodied. So the means that the Catholic Church has at its disposal for cleansing and removing habituated sin and its outflows are all material, all of them. I think that’s nonnegotiable.
Let me now take you in the other direction. Think of the idea of being married but not to anyone. Or think of the idea of having a relationship with one’s child that required no physical presence. These are not sensible ideas; they don’t make any sense. They don’t advert to what human beings are actually like. We absolutely require physical presence and physical contact for parent-child relations, for spousal relations, for relations between friends. Otherwise, our relations can’t work at all. And if that is right, then that must also be true for our relations to the Lord. It’s got to be like that; it couldn’t be any other way.
The doctrine of the incarnation, the real presence of Jesus on earth and in the Eucharist, is the extreme intensified form of that. The right of the sacrament of penance is material: your body is present, another body is present, gestures are exchanged, touch is exchanged, words are exchanged. The right of exorcism, which you mentioned, also entails the use of material objects, the oils of chrism and anointing and so forth. These are all very material things.
I would add to this—although it’s difficult because it is one of the dividing points between the Catholics and Orthodox on the one hand and the Protestants on the other—the use of relics as a central part of the religious life. In Catholic churches, almost always the altar contains the relic of a saint. There are many kinds of these relics—it might be a body part or it might be something else intimate with the saint—but that’s a sacramental representation of the importance of the embodied presence of the community of saints in the building in which the saints currently are gathering. And so that too is very important. Without those things we can’t function. Either as human beings or as Christians.
I think again there’s a sense in which everybody knows this, though not everybody would theorize it in the same way. If you think about how lovers treasure relics of one another when they’re not in their lover’s presence. The lock of hair or the picture or the piece of clothing, or whatever it might be, that’s evidence of exactly the same dynamic impulse that you see in the cult of relics in the church. It’s not silly; it’s simply part of what we’re like. And so the attempt to purify it or remove it is an attempt to make humans into angels. And that’s not going to work. I think we all know it.
TOJ: And since we’re already fallen, becoming angelic would make us . . . ?
TOJ: We never did return to the demons, so let’s do that now.
PG: As I mentioned earlier, I agree with Augustine’s belief that demons are fallen angels, but then we have to figure out what angels are. They’re creatures. They’re like us—they have intellectual capacities, free will, et cetera—but they don’t have bodies, or their bodies are very ethereal.
Augustine has this lovely little treatise called On the Divination of Demons where he addresses a question that few Christians think about now but it’s a great question: How is it that demons appear to be able to do things like tell the future or see things at a great distance? Does this mean that they’re sort of like God? Augustine answers that by saying, no, they just have ethereal bodies, which allow them to move about really fast. Thus, if they seem to know what’s happening in India right now, it’s because they were there a minute ago. The whole point is to puncture the pretentions of the demons. They’re just creatures who have some powers that we don’t have and that’s all.
So what can they do to us? Augustine suggests that they can show us things. They can show us idols, they can show us spectacles, they can offer us glamour, they can generically tempt us. But they cannot compel us. They can’t actually make us do anything. They are real forces in the world—they can be terrifying or seductive—but they’re not compelling, and that’s because they’re creatures like us.
I think that’s the right sort of line to take. Augustine was a great believer in them but also one who wanted to check the Christian tendency to say that humans are subject to them. We can never be subject to them, he thinks. We may enslave ourselves to them, but that’s something that we do, not something that they do to us. And the way to remove that slavery is simple. You just have to turn your gaze from them to God. The slavery is then gone. We may of course not know how to do that, but that’s what exorcism is. It’s a means to produce that result, the turning of the gaze of the possessed one toward something else—God.
1. Mathewes, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 23.
2. Augustine, Confessions, 7.12.
3. Mathewes, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, 24.